Shunning – a barbaric practice

One of the ways in which religious and political groups keep control over their members is by erecting high barriers that distinguish the ‘in’ crowd from those outside. These barriers are not, of course, physical barriers but they act in just as an effective way. They show those inside an organisation, as well as those outside, where the boundaries lie. In extreme groups, the person inside will think little about those who are not part of the group because they are conditioned to look only inside for their social support, emotional needs and source of teaching and guidance. The people outside are in some sense ‘infidels’ or heathen. Either way they are not worthy of any attention or support.

Such boundaries are of course to be regretted when they undermine cohesion within a society. Multiculturalism, as we have suggested recently, does little to challenge what are effectively ghettos. But a greater evil can be seen when individuals are pushed out, for whatever reason, from the tightly knitted security of a religious group. In the process called ‘shunning’, an individual is expelled by all those who had, till then, been the source of social and emotional support. This is a cruel and barbaric practice and not infrequently leads to depression or even suicide. The more an individual had obtained his identity from being part of the group, the greater the sense of total desolation when he is cast out. Shunning, either as an implied threat to all members of a group or as an actual punishment, is something that a blog like this should name as utterly contemptible. It certainly should be outlawed in any group which identifies with Jesus, the man who did so much to welcome the ostracised and the shunned in Jewish society.

In my reflecting on the implications of shunning I have begun to see that it is much worse than an act of hate. When we hate someone, we are consumed by an intense dislike. However much we may dislike the individual we still recognise that he exists and will continue to exist. Shunning takes hatred to a different level. Within the act of shunning there is an implied pretending that he/she has somehow ceased to exist. The person concerned has become such a threat to the organisation, that we have to treat him as a non-person so that the equilibrium of the organisation be not disturbed. If he could be made to disappear, then that would be the best solution. The person who makes the decision to shun someone is probably not fussy as to how they should be made to disappear, even if actual murder is, inconveniently, not a practical option as far as the law of the land is concerned.

I hope that I am not exaggerating when I suggest that the act of shunning is form of psychological murder, the desire that someone should cease to exist. All feelings, all sympathy and the memory of former communication with them is to be withdrawn. This total turning the back on another human being is shocking and reprehensible. My studies on cultic-like churches have brought me face to face with the victims of shunning and the effect on them is far more torrid than if they had just incurred the hatred of an individual. In primitive cultures we see the effect of being hexed by the local witch-doctor. When someone actually dies after such a hexing curse, we speculate that the practitioner had somehow managed to destroy the invisible bonds that link an individual into their community, thus rendering them defenceless and their ‘soul’ totally vulnerable. Shunning is the equivalent in the West of being ‘hexed’, even if our Western culture and upbringing affords us a greater level of psychic defence than is found in primitive societies. We are of course dealing with approximations of what seems to be happening in these actions, but I hope my reader can at least follow my line of argument.

I have mentioned the experience of being shunned by individuals at Trinity Church, Brentwood. I am sure my readers have other experiences of this horror to add to this discussion. The crossing over the road to avoid speaking to someone, forbidding your children speaking to their children; all these are far more cruel than insulting them to their face. To tell someone by your actions that you would prefer it if they disappeared off the face of the earth is a pretty terrible thing. And yet this is the daily experience of tens of thousands of ex-members of religious groups of all kinds across the world. The group, in order to protect its purity, has to deny a voice, or even existence, to those who criticise it, or worse still decide to abandon its version of truth.

As a final comment, I would want to say to anyone who belongs to or considers joining a religious group, whether Christian or otherwise, how does the leadership deal with those who leave? Do they practice shunning? Do you really think that your spiritual welfare is going to be furthered if you get caught up with having to, along with everyone else, shun ex-members? Do you really want to be a person who practises ‘spiritual murder’? There is no other way to describe such a horrific denial of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. There is also no better way to destroy our integrity as human beings than by forcing us to become part of a baying mob who wants to psychologically murder or destroy someone for the ‘crime’ of having left our group.

If you find your way to this page, you might wish to watch my Youtube of my lecture given in Stockholm for the International Cultic Studies Association in June 2015. Type Stephen Parsons 2015 in youtube search

33 comments

  1. EnglishAthena

    Of course you’re right. A vile and detestable practice. But just to play devil’s advocate, there are Biblical texts which appear to suggest just such action. And, just by the by, I have been shunned, not by the whole organisation on the instructions of its leader. That is to take things to a whole higher level. But by the leader, and by another highly placed person in it. Walking round a pillar to avoid making contact, walking past with their head turned pointedly away. The CofE does this. Perhaps sometimes it’s a good idea to look nearer to home.

  2. Cindy K

    I’m likely to come back here and comment again on this post, but what I found to be so hard was I called the total “loss of personhood” involved in my shunning. It’s bad enough that they abandon you like the poor scapegoat who was abandoned to evil after projected, undeserved guilt was imputed to it, but you are no longer a human being that exists to them. They only fly over now and then after you leave, like a vulture looking for anything that they can pick off your carcass (as you aren’t even a corpse to them anymore).
    .

  3. Stephen Parsons

    Thank you Cindy for this post. Having spoken to you and others in Washington, I realise that this experience of being shunned is the most painful part of leaving a cult or extreme religious group. I also realise that as long as you are in the group, the group protects you from this personal deconstruction. It is only when you leave you take on the full horror of feeling your identity falling apart. I have done some reading on the social psychology of ‘ostracism’ and this may form the basis for a lecture for next year’s ICSA conference. It is right at the heart of the cult problem. Thank you for sharing the vivid images. They are powerful.

  4. Chris Pitts

    I remember a ‘prophecy’ being given at the bible school I attended in the mid 1970’s, it went like this (I think I can remember it almost verbatim), “There are black spots among you, they will divide you beware”
    This mentality is very much alive and well in 2014. What to me seems the obvious social aspect of the gospel, like relief of the poor and disempowered, is anything but obvious to most of the churches I have attempted to communicate with in my area. I regard myself as being systematically shunned by their leaders.

    Anyone who brings up things you would think to be obvious in terms of a basic Christian response, is shunned. I notice this most of all with attitudes to the Care of the Elderly. I see no corporate will that wants to challenge the Government, about the failings of the CQC and matters relating to employer abuse, and the disempowerment of the poorly educated. Ritualistic answers carefully worded with ‘get out’ clauses there is plenty of, but you try asking for practical help and I solemnly assure you, you will be shunned.

    Extremely depressed, Chris Pitts

  5. EnglishAthena

    Yes, it sounds familiar, Chris. Is there a food bank in your area? It may be run, or assisted by the church. If you have time to help, it may cheer you up to meet people who are doing what Christians should do. As to the willingness or otherwise of clergy to give you any pastoral support, well, I’m afraid, I have the same experience. They don’t even listen long enough to find out that you have a problem. Or that actually you don’t, or you do, but you’re rather picking the scabs, or anything. They just don’t engage. As if you hadn’t said anything. Weird. But I’ve come across the real shunning. All I can say, Chris, is thank God we haven’t experienced that. The Unions used to do this “sent to Coventry”. It’s vile.

  6. Chris Pitts

    Thanks English Athena.

    It’s good for me to feel your support. Without getting into dramatic effect, I regard Stephen Parsons as a modern day prophet. He has not allowed his intellect to cloud his judgement, even when dealing with the Anglican Church that he obviously loves.

    The vast distance between peoples experience of life in our country has led us to an impasse. The will to explore this deadlock simply does not exist.
    We end up with the trinkets of religion dished out to the desolate people.
    Identifying the failures and evasions in this area will take a lot of very straight talking!
    Stephen, has tried very hard to head up this discussion, he has been shunned.

    The only way that I see forward is to get out on to the street and together say ‘No’ as effectively as politicians say ‘Yes’. I and my fellow members of the Intergalactic Fish Club are ready willing and able for the revolution. Peace, Chris

  7. Cindy K

    Echoing Chris Pitts comment above, upon re-reading this post, I also found the alienation within the group to be almost more painful. During the last quarter of my time in the Shepherding Discipleship group, my husband and I endeavored to advocate for the women who were suffering domestic abuse (and some other psychologically abusive behavior in other areas of the church). While we were met with different tactics of punishment, for refusal to comply, we found ourselves being pushed to the margins of the group — and the positive reinforcement ceased. I saw more of Albert Biderman’s Chart of Coercion elements at work, as we were being “tested” with trivial demands and occasional indulgences before I even knew about these dynamics.

    As people in groups usually do, I clung to the confirmation bias that the group was virtuous, and the mounting evidence that their virtue was limited and so selective proved very painful. It took me a few years after I left the group to rightly classify that direct and indirect pressure to conform as a potent type of punishment. (I struggle against using the word, wishing that I could call it “negative reinforcement” — but that is something entirely different and wouldn’t be remotely accurate.)

    During my time as a member but active dissident, I struggled with the dissonance caused by the growing reality that we were being ostracized and marginalized. I could not reckon how I’d lost the sense of “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” within that church while contending for contending against something as morally repugnant as domestic abuse. I’m grateful — for it is precisely this pain and issue that jettisoned me out of there, but I found the experience shunning before I actually left to be more traumatic. (I did not realize fully that I would be rejected as unpleasantly as I was after leaving, but I certainly expected it. I didn’t expect it while still a member.)

  8. Chris Pitts

    Being part of the group that Cindy K has described is like a prison sentence. I know it so well Cindy!
    There is a darkness involved with this that can hardly be overstated.
    The way that these people inveigle their way into your conscience and leave the brain police behind is truly evil.
    If I live to be a hundred I will never get over the way they took over my life.

    If you get healed Cindy, remember, “It is not he, she, them, or it, that you belong to!”

    “Where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty’ 2 Corinthians, 3:15
    ‘To serve Him is perfect freedom’ St Augustine

  9. Cindy K

    Thank you, Chris. Though I check in with my counselor a few times a year, just to stay grounded, I count myself healed. I walked away from my group in ’97, had exit counseling, and I’m now involved in helping people who exit the Fundamentalist Evangelical homeschooling/quiverfull/patriarchy groups in the US. I’m doing all that I can to squeeze every bit of goodness out of what was a needlessly awful experience.

    I also sought out Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy which transformed my “flashbulb,” associated memories into memories of sad events that are definitely in my past. I’ll never finish working on personal issues like boundaries, but I didn’t enter my group with a sense of them.

    Jesus said that His yoke was easy and His burden was light. Our spiritual journey should help us, not hurt us — and I’m happy that I’ve walked away from these shame-based systems. (I’m grateful for the Episcopal church and the structure of the liturgy.)

    I’m glad and encouraged that you’re healing and growing. There are plenty of modern Pharisees out there who make that difficult, but it’s sounds like you’ve learned well how to mark and avoid them. 🙂

  10. Chris Pitts

    Great to hear that Cindy! The knowledge that people are overcoming this is also a help to healing. I still struggle with the concept of a God that loves me unconditionally, but who knows, maybe one day? My wife is ill at present so I may fall off the radar for a bit. LOVE & PEACE, Chris

  11. EnglishAthena

    I’m sorry to hear about your wife. Would it be alright to pray for her? (It’s good practice always to ask) It was having a child that made me see what unconditional love was. I discovered I was terrified what would happen to me if anything happened to him. I was immobilised thanks to an emergency Caesarian section, so I had plenty of time to think. And it was then I came to realise that God loves me like that! It’s an overwhelming feeling, and it was hard to get my head round that God feels it, too. Curiously enough perhaps, I don’t always feel it exactly, but I know it intellectually. And it’s mind blowing.

  12. Chris Pitts

    Thanks English Athena, yes please pray, thank you. Mary has scaring on lungs area (Constant coughing). Bronchoscopy on monday between 8 am and mid afternoon. Really appreciate your prayers. Chris

  13. Cindy K

    Chris, I will pray, too. I suffer from occasional asthma which used to be quite terrible — and I’m blessed and grateful that it only pops up rarely. The frustration and emotional aspects of not being able to breathe comfortably have a dramatic affect on us. Health, comfort, peace and joy to Mary.

  14. Grace

    I was recently stripped of my church membership of eight years and ordered to be shunned by the entire church membership – about 150 people and their families – on the orders of the pastors/elders (4 men).
    I had been active in the ministries of my church – hospitality, the sick, families with new babies, people with cancer, organizing events – etc.
    I discovered while doing legal research that a new member was a convicted sex offender and was on Megan’s List (here in California).
    I reported it to the pastors/elders. They screamed at me. He was a friend of theirs, etc. They said he was coming off the list of sex offenders which is why he was allowed to join. His supervising law enforcement agency said that was a lie. They were so concerned about the untruths that my pastors/elders told me, they contacted the California Attorney General’s Office (our highest law enforcement agency) which runs Megan’s List and confirmed “it was a total lie”.
    I am a mandated child abuse reporter as are these clergy members.
    I have watched him touch young children. The pastors/elders said it wasn’t a big deal. He’s a convicted felon who served prison time. Yes, it is a big deal!
    The pastors/elders have defended him and put him in all sorts of positions of responsibility. Parents of children have no idea he’s a sex offender. It’s frightening and sickening.
    The pastors/elders ordered me to never talk to law enforcement again, never reveal the name of the church I attended, or the names of the pastors/elders.
    I was then stripped of my church membership, lied about, and shunned. It’s a bizarre experience.
    This happened in Silicon Valley, California. (A well-respected dentist was previously shunned on trumped up charges as well. He and his lovely wife have been married for more than 40-years. It made me sick.)
    So I must up my self-care: swimming, exercise, sleep, enjoyment, new hobbies, reading The Bible, doing fun things. This too shall pass.

  15. EnglishAthena

    Grace, can you report him to the law enforcement agencies? Can you tell the people at the church that their children may be being harmed by this man? You did the right thing. Now look after yourself. And pray. And I’m sure others will pray for you.

  16. Anonymous

    Thank you for posting. I have posted the link to a church page I was shunned from. I hope to help them to think about this kind of behavior and the impact on others.

  17. Stephen Parsons

    Anon, I am glad you have found us. I have developed my thinking a bit since writing this and you might like to have a look at my lecture given in Stockholm last month on ostracism. Just type Stephen Parsons 2015 into youtube. There is lot to be said on this subject and hardly anyone has studied it at depth. Please contact me directly if you want to discuss this further. My email is on the front page.

  18. EnglishAthena

    Kathleen, what can I say? I will put you on my prayer list. I have been the victim of people talking about you rather than to you, as well. But nothing like what you describe. Punishing you for something someone else says and that they haven’t checked or spoken to you about is pretty standard, I think. Shunning is a way of controlling the membership. They see what happened to you, and they are afraid to step out of line in case it happens to them, too. And I hope you get help with your abdominal pain, too. It can be very difficult to diagnose in women. There are three systems it can be, and all the nerves and muscles are tangled up together. All the best, and I’m sure we will all remember you in our prayers.

  19. Anonymous

    I exposed a 14 year old girl who felt up a 8 year old a d 7 year old. I have been shunned every since. Don’t trust going to church anymore any where. I still love and trust God

  20. Stephen Parsons

    Thank you for pointing out that no one else seems to recognise that the church is a place where shunning happens. I did the Google search and this page came up first. The fact that I seem to be the only person that has this insight makes me believe that this blog is worth doing. I get wobbles from time to time wondering whether this site is appreciated but this simple search has given me the determination to persevere a bit longer. By the way I don’t have a facebook account but if you want to send me a piece I can edit it for use on the blog. My email is on the welcome page.

    • Sasha

      I have read that Alexandria Virginia is the USA center for Freemasons, an organization that serves as aggressive ” enforcers” for Protestant denominations. You may have ended up in a church full of Freemasons. I would suggest Googling them, and ignoring the “fraternal organization ” part of what you read and focusing on their relationship with the occult and with organized crime.

      • Eric Bonetti

        I have some news to report. The rector of my church, Bob Malm, has agreed to lift his edict of shunning. Of course, the damage that has been done is in many ways irreversible, including the emotional damage to family members, the reputational damage to the parish, and the fractured relationships in the parish. That’s the truly sad thing–once clergy go over the cliff and resort to shunning, there’s no going back.

        • EnglishAthena

          That’s good. But was there no way you could just have left? Perhaps if it stops it will help to clear your head and then you can see where to go next.

          • Eric Bonetti

            Hi English Athena. Excellent point. I don’t really have much to do with my parish these days, as there’s not much to be gained from a faith community where shunning is acceptable. But neither did I want to reward bad behavior–if and when I leave, it will be in the time and manner of my choice, versus my priest’s.

  21. Stephen Parsons

    Eric. I am sorry to hear of your experience. It is obvious to judge from the numbers of comments on this topic that it is one of considerable moment. Although this blog is fairly small, we do hope that people like yourself who experience the pain of church power abuse find some help from realising that they are not alone.

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